Exercise Beats Medication for Reducing Mental Health Symptoms

Exercise Beats Medication for Reducing Mental Health Symptoms

According to a new study from researchers at the University of South Australia, physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or the leading medications. Women who were pregnant or had just given birth, people with depression, healthy people, and people with HIV or kidney disease benefited the most.

The review is the most thorough to date, with 97 reviews, 1039 trials, and 128,119 participants. Twelve electronic sources were used to find research papers that met the criteria and were published between the start of the databases and January 1, 2022.

The review found that exercise interventions lasting 12 weeks or less were most effective at reducing mental health symptoms, highlighting the speed with which physical activity can make a difference. It demonstrates that physical activity can significantly improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress.

Physical Activity Interventions

Dr. Ben Singh, the lead University of South Australia researcher, believes that physical activity should be prioritized to better manage the growing prevalence of mental health issues.

“Physical activity is known to help improve mental health. Yet despite the evidence, it has not been widely adopted as a first-choice treatment. Our review shows that physical activity interventions can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in all clinical populations, with some groups showing even greater signs of improvement,”

Dr. Singh said.

When compared to short and mid-duration bursts, higher-intensity exercise had greater improvements for depression and anxiety, while longer durations had smaller effects.

It Doesn’t Take Much

Also, the research showed that all kinds of physical activity and exercise were good for you, including aerobic exercises like walking, resistance training, Pilates, and yoga. Notably, the research indicates that it takes little exercise to improve mental health.

Prof Carol Maher, a senior researcher at UniSA, says the study is the first to examine the effects of all types of physical activity on depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in all adult populations.

“Examining these studies as a whole is an effective way for clinicians to easily understand the body of evidence that supports physical activity in managing mental health disorders,”

Maher said.

The team hopes this review will highlight the importance of physical activity, including structured exercise interventions, as a primary approach to treating depression and anxiety.

Adolescents’ Mental Health

More evidence for the positive impact of exercise comes from a recent, separate study suggesting regular physical activity can improve adolescents’ mental health and help with behavioural difficulties.

Data from the Children of the 1990s study (also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children; ALSPAC) was analyzed by researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh, Strathclyde, Bristol, and Georgia in the United States. A total of 4,755 11-year-olds had their activity levels measured.

The research found that engaging in regular moderate to vigorous physical activity between the ages of 11 and 13 was associated with better mental health between the ages of 11 and 13. Physical activity was also linked to less hyperactivity and behavioural problems in children, such as losing their temper, fighting with other children, lying, and stealing.

Fewer Emotional Difficulties and Behavioral Problems

They found that having more moderate or intense physical activity was linked to a small but noticeable decrease in symptoms of depression and emotional problems. The research also showed that regular exercise had a small but detectable association with fewer behavioural problems, even after controlling for other possible influences.

“This study adds to the increasing evidence base about how important physical activity is for all aspects of young people’s development — it can help them feel better and do better at school. Supporting young people to lead healthy, active lives should be prioritized,”

said Dr. Josie Booth of the University of Edinburgh.

Even though it may seem obvious that physical activity is good for mental health, there hasn’t been much research on this in children and teens, so the results of this study are important. The results are also important because global levels of moderate-to-vigorous intensity activity in pre-teens are so low. Less than a third meet the WHO and UK Health Departments’ recommended 60 minutes daily.

  1. Singh B, Olds T, Curtis R, et al. Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 16 February 2023. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2022-106195
  2. Josephine N. Booth, Andy R. Ness, Carol Joinson, Phillip D. Tomporowski, James M.E. Boyle, Sam D. Leary, John J. Reilly. Associations between physical activity and mental health and behaviour in early adolescence. Mental Health and Physical Activity, Volume 24, 2023, 100497, ISSN 1755-2966